State Senator Page Cortez

State Senator Page Cortez, R-Lafayette 

Lionel Rainey III is a well-known and connected political operative who runs in conservative circles in the state. As a guest on the Lafayette-based Moon Griffon radio show recently, Rainey predicted what the Louisiana political landscape will look like soon.

“We’re getting ready to fight a war for the next four years, and our front line of defense is going to be the Louisiana Legislature,” said Rainey.

The political chattering class often likes to note the intense divide afflicting our nation’s capital as different from the disagreements we have down here in the Bayou State. They are not.

The battle lines are clear. Gov. John Bel Edwards, a Democrat partial to the government sector, versus a staunchly conservative Legislature more favorable to a vibrant private sector. Edwards favors a healthy bottom line for plaintiff attorneys while the Legislature will advocate for businesses and lower auto insurance rates. Edwards wants to raise the minimum wage. Most conservative legislators believe the free market should determine salaries, not government. Other than the issues of abortion and gun rights, the battles we face here in Louisiana are very much the same in Washington D.C.

If Vegas were to handicap who’s favored to win the battle of ideas between Edwards and lawmakers over the next four years, they’d have the governor as a considerable underdog. Maybe four touchdowns or more.

Edwards suffered his first major setback in this epic battle with the news that state Sen. Page Cortez, a Republican from Lafayette, has reportedly secured enough votes among his colleagues to become the next state Senate president. The news is not the worst-case scenario for Edwards. State Sen. Sharon Hewitt, a Republican from Slidell who was considered Cortez’s strongest rival, would have been a much more conservative choice.

I spoke with Cortez recently and didn’t pick up on a strong conservative vibe you typically get with some legislators. Cortez was one of the Republican senators to vote in favor of Edwards’ sales tax increase. But Cortez will most certainly be a dramatic departure from outgoing Senate President John Alario, a Republican in name only from Westwego. Alario, who was term-limited out of the Senate, was a yes man if there ever was one for Edwards during his first term. We should not expect the same from Cortez.

The Cortez victory also breaks with the tradition of a go-along-to-get-along Senate when it comes to the body’s relationship with the governor.

“I believe the Senate decided that they wanted a presiding officer who wasn’t dictated to each individual senator by the governor. That’s the original structure. Three individual branches of government for checks and balances. I believe the Legislature will become an independent third branch of government like it should have always been,” said Cortez.

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Alario, as Senate president, saved Edwards the embarrassment of vetoing tort reform legislation in a state with sky-high auto-insurance rates and declining oil industry. Alario stacked the Senate Judiciary Committee with trial lawyers, making tort reform legislation dead on arrival.

I asked Cortez about tort reform, and it didn’t seem to be a huge priority for him. He instead pointed to improving the condition of Louisiana’s roads and highways, with their many potholes and other problems, as a way to lower auto insurance rates.

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Cortez says he’d like to see at least $4 billion spent on improving the state’s infrastructure, with projects like the Calcasieu River Bridge, the I-49 connector through Lafayette, the Mississippi River Bridge in Baton Rouge, and the Jimmy Davis Bridge in Shreveport. Cortez pointed to the state’s current budget surplus as a way to start to pay for such projects.

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Cortez does not believe a gas tax used for infrastructure improvements will pass unless it comes with an offsetting tax cut in other areas. Cortez would not emphatically say he’d oppose any new taxes sponsored by the governor. He did say it’s unlikely new tax proposals will make it out of the House.

House members will soon pick a new speaker. Considering the makeup of the body, it’s unlikely the governor will be happy with their choice. Edwards is most likely in for an uphill battle over the next four years.

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